UX Mythbusting: Is The Homepage Really The Most Important Part of Your Website?

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UX Mythbusting: Is The Homepage Really The Most Important Part of Your Website?
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The homepage is the page that often gets the most attention from design teams. A lot of time and effort is spent on perfecting both its visual design and content — much more than for any other page on the website.

But is the homepage really that important? There was a time, not too long ago, when a company’s homepage was considered the key part of its website. This is no longer the case. In fact, it might actually be the least important page on the site.

In this article, I’ll explain why we often think of the homepage as the most valuable part of a site and how visitors actually use it. I’ll also provide a few recommendations on how to design a good homepage.

Why do we think the homepage is so valuable?

There are two widespread misconceptions about homepages:

  • The homepage creates the first impression.
  • The homepage gets the most views, so it’s the most important page on a website.

Both misconceptions are based on the idea that homepage acts as the entry point page users see when they first visit a site. Since designers want to create a positive first impression and provide a user with all the important information about a product or business right from the start, they spend countless hours perfecting the homepage.

Does it really create a first impression?

There was a time when users had to type a URL address in a browser’s address input field to visit a website, but that was long ago. Online behavior has changed since then, and today many users come to sites from search engines, social media, links from other websites, or a newsletter. In fact, one of Dan Brown’s 8 Principles of Information Architecture is based on the assumption that at least half of a website’s visitors will come through some page other than the homepage. This notion has become commonplace — many sites find that most of their traffic comes through a side door, not the homepage. Below is just an example of the many ways people can find your website:

Not all users are coming in through the front door. They arrive on websites through various ways.

This tells us that the starting (or entrance) point for a user could be any page on your site. The vast majority of traffic to websites never sees the homepage. Thus, a website homepage isn’t like the cover of a book. Every page on the website is responsible for creating a first impression and communicating the primary goal of the site. Every page also has the responsibility to tell visitors where they are and what else they can do while they’re visiting the site.

Is it really the most important page?

While the homepage might be the most viewed page on your website, that doesn’t automatically mean you should spend all your time on its optimization. There’s one crucial reason for this — the homepage is just a step in the user journey, it’s not a final destination for users. The role of a homepage in a user’s journey is similar to a hotel lobby. The lobby is an essential part of every hotel but not the place visitors want to say. People don’t come to a hotel to stay in the lobby — they want to stay in a room. Similarly, most of the time people spend on websites is not on the homepage.

Joshua Porter focused on this in his article Prioritizing Design Time: A Long Tail Approach. He analysed uie.com’s visitor statistics and found that while the homepage had more views than any other page on the site, it wasn’t the most valuable part of the website. Lower level articles are what actually bring value for users, so optimizing these pages makes more sense than optimizing the homepage.

How people use homepages.

Understanding how people use homepages is critical for creating a proper homepage design. In studying user behavior, Jared Spool’s team figured out that the homepage provides just two functions that are really important for users:

  • The homepage either delivers the content to the user (e.g. if users are interested in the latest news, they visit a news site’s homepage for that information).
  • Or it delivers them closer to the page that has the content.

Those are the only two reasons users care about a homepage. The reason for this is simple: Most information presented on the homepage has very little connection to the visitor and their needs because people search for specific, not general information. As a result, they skip over the homepage to find what they really want.

When designers try to make the homepage serve other functions (e.g. show a company’s  latest news), they waste precious design resources because users generally don’t care about such information. The following chart perfectly illustrates this problem.

What a typical university homepage does, and should contain. Image Source: xkcd.com

How to optimize a homepage.

Although the homepage is less important, it still serves a vital purpose — to help users get to the next page, where they will find the information they need. Let’s figure out what we can do to make a homepage useful for first-time users.

Set global goals.

When designing a homepage, one of the first and most important tasks designers should do is to define its purpose. The purpose of a homepage should be directly related to the goal of the website. To create an effective homepage you need to find a clear answer to the following question — What is the main thing I want my visitors to do after they see the homepage? It might be subscribing to a membership program, purchasing a product, or signing up for a newsletter. Whatever it might be, make that your number one goal when designing the homepage.

One good example of a goal-driven homepage design is Airbnb. The page doesn’t overwhelm users with information, but provides just enough details so users can start the journey of booking a place to stay.

Airbnb removes all unnecessary distractions and focuses on a primary goal. It gives the visitor a nudge towards a certain action that Airbnb wants them to take.

Interestingly enough, the homepage’s ability to achieve a website’s primary goal is more important than its visual attractiveness. One good example of that is Craigslist. The homepage for Craigslist contains a search box and a list of categories. This page itself doesn’t bring any value for visitors and looks dated. But most users don’t care about that — as soon as they get to the particular category they’re looking for, the site becomes valuable for them.

There’s nothing interesting on Craigslist’s homepage. It looks old and boring, but it's still relevant to the user's goal.

Identify user preferences.

As mentioned, a lot of traffic bypasses a site’s homepage and goes directly to its content pages. It’s worth investigating where users spend their time. Use tools like Google Analytics to understand a current user’s behavior — look at total numbers of pageviews but also at time spent on each page across each page type (e.g. articles, the ‘About Us’ page, the product detail page). This will make it clear what content is the most interesting for your users. After that, you’ll be able to optimize your homepage to provide a short route to that content.

Embrace simplicity.

Most users define an ideal web experience as being able to find what they’re looking for quickly. To satisfy that, keep the “less is more” principle in mind and avoid cluttering your homepage with excessive text, images, and videos. Remove all the unnecessary distractions and focus on a simple design that is relevant for users.

A cluttered page is unattractive and doesn’t make users want to read the content, especially when there’s no visual hierarchy.

Define metrics.

Before starting the process of optimization, it’s important to put measures in place. If you don’t have any measures in place, you won’t be able to tell whether your design is successful or not. Test and measure after each design iteration!

Conclusion.

Most users look for something particular when browsing (either a particular piece of knowledge or a specific item). The homepage can lead them to this information — it serves as a launching pad for everything users are going to do on the website. But don’t expect to win people over just with the homepage. Keep in mind that the homepage is just one step in your user’s journey and it’s essential to get people off the homepage as fast as you can!

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